The Best of Times

In my circle of perfume friends there is a phrase I hear quite a bit, “Everything new is crap.” This could be more politely phrased as, “It is the worst of times.” It is a somewhat easy position to take because of the sheer amount of new perfume released. Most new fragrance is cynical focus group driven designs. Part of the reason I write about this ephemeral art is there is so much more than cynicism on display.

At this point in time we now are in a world where an independent perfumer can make a living. While there are still some pockets of less than forthright design in this area that is the minority. What is here are examples of single-minded aesthetic. If you need any evidence of that take a look at the twenty-two nominees for the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards. These are fragrances which exemplify the vitality of the independent perfume sector. Underneath the list of finalists were over 200 submitted entries which show these are not the few they are the best of the many. If you were to spend the next few months wearing one of these each week you would see there is something happening here.

You might be thinking, “sure that’s independents of course that wasn’t what I meant”. Except some of the stalwarts of niche perfumery have stepped up with new releases that show the best of what these brands represent. Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle released a collaboration with designer Alber Elbaz and perfumer Dominique Ropion. Kilian Hennessy returned to some of the initial influences from the beginning of By Kilian with the new Black Phantom. Yann Vasnier produced the Bloomsbury collection for Jo Malone London. Geza Schoen’s fourth iteration of Molecule 04 and Escentric 04 continue a tradition which can simultaneously educate and thrill perfume lovers. All four of these are brands which defined the parameters of niche perfumery. They represent the longevity of this style of perfume as well as consumers’ acceptance of it.

So now you’re thinking “okay sure those are the experienced what I’m talking about are the new brands” Except there are new brands like Vilhelm Parfumerie and Nomenclature which refute this thought.

Now you’re thinking, “it’s the big brands the ones which only care about money over creativity” Except Hermes Eau des Merveilles Bleue and Cartier Baiser Fou aren’t support for that line of thinking.

I want to put up a thought which is different than what many like to propose, “This is the best of times”. On my desk, right now, I have an embarrassment of riches through all of these areas. I am having trouble remembering this many excellent new releases in front of me at the same time. I think across every area of fragrance there has been a slow refining of what each sector appeals to. Therefore I think the fragrance glass is more than half-full.

Mark Behnke

I’m a Judge

I received some great news just prior to leaving for Pitti Fragranze. I wanted to wait a couple of weeks to share it because I didn’t want it to get lost in my coverage of that event. What I have been waiting to shout about is I have been named as a Finalist Judge for the 2016 Art & Olfaction Awards.

For those who are not familiar with the Art & Olfaction Awards they were established in 2014 as a way to recognize the best perfume in a calendar year within the independent perfume community. Saskia Wilson-Brown in her role as Director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) realized there was no way of recognizing the amazing creativity taking place outside of the mainstream. With the creation of these new awards there would now be a way of doing that.

Golden-Pears-2014-001

There had been a few previous attempts at trying to award the indie community. They failed because of two things. One was a distressing lack of transparency. Once the entry was submitted it sort of entered a black hole from which a list of finalists would be announced followed by a winner without knowing who was judging or even how it had been performed. The other poorly thought out aspect was an extremely high entry fee. I am guessing the thinking behind that was it would reduce the amount of entries because an indie perfume brand was only going to be able to afford one or two candidates. When all was said and done the indie community felt a bit trampled upon. It was high time for a different way of doing things.

The process for The Art & Olfaction Awards has addressed both of these issues. The entry fee for any of the categories is $65 for non-IAO members and $55 for members. This is mainly to defray the cost of storing the entries and shipping them around as necessary. At this cost it allows for a brand which feels it has multiple worthy entries to enter them.

AO Awards Preliminary Judging Table

The Preliminary Judging Table for the 2015 Art & Olfaction Awards

The judging could not be more transparent. For the preliminary round a panel of 10-20 individual judges come to the IAO and to a table laid out as in the picture above from last year’s preliminary judging. The nominees are stripped of all the labeling and are just anonymous vials. This allows for the perfume to be the most important thing. Pictures of the judging are posted to the Facebook page. After the preliminary round there are five finalists chosen in three categories: Artisan, Independent, and Experimental. For the Artisan and Independent categories they are sent in anonymous vials to the panel of Finalist judges for those categories. The Experimental category has its own panel of judges. I am one of the finalist judges for the Independent and Artisan categories. I and five other judges will determine the winners based on our votes.

To say I am excited would be an understatement. I have been so impressed with the first two editions of these awards and had been happy with being one of those who covered it. To be a part of the process is more than I could ask for.

Even to the best news there are a couple things I will miss about being a spectator instead of a participant. Over the last two years it has been my pleasure to encourage those brands which I believed had done exceptional work to enter. I was happy to give advice on what I thought was their best of the year. I was also happy to be the pusher urging some of those reluctant to enter. I believe that by being a judge that kind of activity has to end for me. In the spirit of the transparency of these awards I can’t have off the record conversations with potential entries if I am eventually going to be judging them.

While I can’t have personal conversations that doesn’t mean I can’t make a more generic plea here in public. I think that’s why I have a blog.

If you are an independent perfume brand I implore you to enter what you consider to be your best work of the past year. Entries open on October 5, 2015 and must be postmarked by December 4, 2015. The health and vitality of this particular award is made stronger by more entries. All of the rules for entering can be found here.

Finally to those of you who I will not be able to be that annoying voice in your ear this year. To those of you who feel you don’t want to be part of a beauty contest. To those who have that nagging little mantra about not being good enough buzzing in your brain. Get over it and enter. If you have made what you consider to be a good perfume this year enter it and let us both find out how it stands up. The short history of this award has already shown that even the smallest brand can bring home the golden pear. Give yourself the opportunity to see if you will be this year’s success story.

Sometime after the first of the year I will be sitting down across from ten anonymous samples and break into a big smile before undertaking the job of judging them. I want one of them to be yours.

Mark Behnke